Long ago, there was a great wise chief, who mourned the death of his wife, and would not comforted until Ta-vwoats, one of the Indian gods, came to him, and told him she was in a happier land, and offered to take him there, that he might see for himself, if, upon his return, he would cease to mourn. The great chief promised. Then Ta-vwoats made a trail through the mountains that intervene between that beautiful land, the balmy region in the great west, and this, the desert home of the poor Nu-ma.
This trail was the canyon gorge of the Colorado. Through it he led him; and, when they had returned, the deity exacted from the chief a promise that he would tell no one of the joys of that land, lest, through discontent with the circumstances of this world, they should desire to go to heaven. Then he rolled a river into the gorge, a mad, raging stream, that should engulf any that might attempt to enter thereby.
More than once have I been warned by the Indians not to enter this canyon. They considered it disobedience to the gods and contempt for their authority, and believed that it would surely bring upon me their wrath.
John Wesley Powell, 1869
It has been, admittedly, quite a long time since I’ve considered writing anything about Arizona. Arizona was my Big Trip. It was my first big adventure. I filled out applications and got recommendations for something not even remotely related to college. In fact, just the opposite–I was trying to persuade the Girl Scout Leaders of the Cactus Pine Council that I was athletically fit, mentally sure, and hardy enough to survive in the desert for 12 days. At the end of the trip, I had a lasting impression and stark memories. Is it Thursday? Time to break out the Arizona pictures for another round of #throwback. If you’ve been to my Instagram page and you’re sick of backpacking pictures and desert scenery, I won’t apologize–it was the most important twelve days of my life so far. At the end of the trip, I had discovered some things about myself and I saw in others–strangers at the beginning which became lifelong friends from across the country–qualities that I aspired to have.
But let me back up to Early October-ish 2006. It all started late one night at the high school after Field Hockey practice. I was still involved in Girl Scouts and we met once in awhile, but once you get into high school it becomes more difficult to be involved. Being older means more responsibility, but when your schedule goes a little something like High School 7:30 – 2:15, Field Hockey Practice 3 – 6, and Working a couple times a week until 9 or Musical Practice until 11 on top of I-haven’t-even-started-my-homework-yet, Girl Scouts and meetings and volunteerism takes a back seat. One particular night, I left the just-darkening field hockey field and took my sweaty self to the computer lab to meet up with my mom, troop leader, and other girl scouts. That evening, our troop leader was showing us a new website called Destinations. The site was filled with adventurous trips, from boating in Alaska to hiking Costa Rican jungles to studying history in Boston. There were trips for all sorts of stomachs. If you’re not into wilderness, then you could immerse yourself in a city and its culture and focus on politics or creativity instead.
I picked two immediately: Happy Trails (horseback living in the Appalachian Mountains) and Canyon Odyssey 2007 (backpacking and horseback riding in the Grand Canyon and Sedona).
At 15, the farthest from home I had ever been was Canada (northerly) and Virginia (southerly) on family vacations. Other than that, I had stayed firmly on the East Coast doing high school things: reading books, going to sports practice, seeing my boyfriend (and eventually, lack thereof).
The trip listing was about $1200, all-inclusive, not including airfare. The trip description was thrilling: I should have the ability to hike 5-6 miles per day and would carry a backpack weighing about 20% of my weight. Overall, I would be going on an adventure. I would break out of the Connecticut High School bubble and travel, alone, to Arizona, to meet strangers from across the country and live with them in the desert while traveling across one of the greatest landscapes on Earth.
I remember, vaguely, starting the application, and painstakingly recounting every camping trip, every experience hiking and orienteering, thanks in part to my brothers’ Boy Scout troop trips to which I was dragged every few months. I described my endurance and athletic stability, and selected three family friends to recommend me as a perfect candidate for the canyon. My mom and I at some point attended an information session for Destinations, in which a girl set up a display and showed us pictures and her journal from her trip, in which she manned a boat and sailed through Alaskan waters.
I was rejected from Happy Trails.
Finally, January 2007: I received an email from the Cactus Pine Council. I was accepted into the Canyon Odyssey Destinations as an alternate, so I would be going on the trip if any girls turned their spots down. I responded to the email with exhilaration.
Hello, this is Amanda Bollacker responding to the notification that I am an alternate. I would like to accept this position and would be happy to hear if I would be able to fill in any spots. Thank you for letting me know, and I’ll be anticipating any future updates. Thanks!
I sold as many boxes of cookies as I could to earn cookie credits. I sold my American Girl Doll collection and saved up babysitting money. I received a small amount from the Connecticut Valley Girl Scouts Council in Hartford. I was too young to have a paying job, so my parents paid for the second half of the trip.
In the mail on February 1 came a bulky manila envelope from the Cactus Pine Council in Phoenix, stuffed with paperwork. Obviously, there was a spot open for me.
I kept the envelope and still have the thick piles of paper that came with it: a participant agreement, a permission form, a trip itinerary and payment plan, travel information, health information and privacy statement, medical emergency statement, physical examination record, health history record, and photo release forms. At the bottom of the “WELCOME!” top sheet read:
Throughout the next several months you will be receiving more information from us. In all of our correspondence with you, you will read DRINK MORE WATER! It is very important to begin a steady water intake before visiting the Arizona desert. So, beginning, now, until the end of Canyon Odyssey 2007, drink at least 8 glasses of water per day (2 liters).
Then came the LISTS. Lists of items I would need for backpacking, lists of items I would need for clothing, toiletries, and etc. I went out and bought my first pair of hiking boots–waterproof, ankle high to support my legs on the rocky terrain–and hot and cold sleeping bag in order to stay warm during the cold desert nights and cool during the heat wave.The key with clothing was layers: tank tops, zip-off waterproof pants that could convert into shorts, and lots of hiking socks with ventilation. Maybe one rain jacket. But only one. I packed enough clothing for 12 days, but once I got to Arizona, we were quickly assured that clothing for 12 days was far too much. We really only needed about half that.
And then came the physical challenges and suggestions. In order to become acclimated to the aridity, it was suggested (as quoted above) that I start drinking more water–immediately. I started carrying a water bottle around to fulfill the daily 2-liter quota. Today, I still carry around a 1-liter bottle. When it’s empty, I refill it. Keeping a full water supply in front of you is a lot like keeping a bag of candy in front of you–you’ll want to keep ingesting if you see it.
I began jogging in the mornings and evenings with my dad around our block, which measures just about a mile. I walked throughout town in my hiking boots in order to break them in. I specifically remember this as the winter melted to spring and I didn’t make the JV lacrosse team: I would keep walking laps around my neighborhood, pretending I was in Middle Earth during the War of the Ring (I had become a Tolkien Fiend at this point).
In the Spring, my mom and I took a Girl Scout camping trip to the Leigh High River in Pennsylvania for my first white-water rafting experience, shortly after two boyfriend breakups and all the accompanying drama. I returned after a triumphant class-4 adventure and bright red lobster thighs from getting sunburned on the raft. In summer, my best friend Laura and her parents allowed my family to stay in her Vermont condo, at the base of Mount Snow, for a weekend. I brought my hiking boots and we used the mountainous terrain to our advantage, even getting lost close to the summit of one of the mountains because we couldn’t find the end of the trail and kept running into swamps.
I thought I was doing my job, but let’s be honest–hiking a mile on flat terrain, or even a couple miles of a mountain, is nowhere akin to 5 to 6 miles a day in the desert. At the time, I thought I was doing an adequate job training, or that I could adapt quickly. You see, the problem with that, is that the desert will find ways to kill you.
The last part of prep was getting the airline ticket. I was an unaccompanied minor, so I needed particular chaperoning getting in the airport and on the flight and off of it. My flight was US Airways, flight 419 at 8:44 a.m. I would be meeting Tracie at the airport in Phoenix when I arrived. I would be leaving from Bradley International in Windsor Locks. This opened a whole other can of worms:
I had never flown before.
The night before the trip, I was restless. We had a family party that I vaguely remember, and struggling to pack all my things afterward. There was so much to take in. I went to a Boy Scout Rock Cats game in New Britain that night, and I didn’t sleep at all. The alarm was going off at 5:30 before I could blink. It was still dark out. I was prowling through the house with my suitcase, breathing heavy. This was really happening.
My family drove quietly through town in the dark and got onto the highway. I had never been to Bradley, and once we got there, we pulled up at the front of the airport where there was some strange criss-crossing architectural thing. My dad and I got in line for baggage claim, and I learned quickly that in my novel about three kids flying from Canada to Key West, you simply do not “buy your tickets” at the airport as imagined and hop into the plane like a bus. There was airport security after that, and taking off your shoes, and handing over your boarding pass and waiting at the gate.
My flight was finally called, and my mom and dad hugged me goodbye. A woman who was waiting with them asked where I was going alone. And she was appalled to hear I had never flown before.
As I walked into the gate, my mom said, “my daughter is very brave.”
I did not look back.
(Don’t forget to read about my trip to England in 2011 in several parts, starting here!)